I don't believe in mollycoddling children. The world is a tough place, and wrapping kids in cotton wool only stores up trouble for the future. With that in mind I've never sheltered my kids from the truth, and have always been honest about difficult topics like death and sex. But lately I've become conscious of the violence reported on the news every day, and I've considered switching it off when the children are around. How do you explain issues like rape, murder and terrorism? Should they even be part of a young person's vocabulary?
Tasha Goddard has two daughters, aged eight and five. As a child she watched the news every day, heard the headlines on the radio, and read the paper from a very young age. "In principle it's a good thing," she says. "It's important to be aware of what's going on in the world, and children can learn a lot from discussions that arise after hearing a news bulletin."
But she admits she doesn't let her own children watch the news at all. "I can't explain it: it's just something I'm afraid of doing, for no logical reason whatsoever."
She's not alone. Fiona Pennell is mother to two boys, aged four and two. She doesn't have the news on when her sons are around, saying it simply isn't appropriate. "They quiz me on why the newsreaders are talking about murder," she says. "It's not right that little children should hear things like that."
But if we hide the truth from our children, will they grow up believing the world is a perfect place, with no fighting, no law-breaking, and no tragedy? How will they learn about free speech, about the oppression that exists in so many parts of society? How will they appreciate how much they have, compared to others who have so little?
Journalist Emma Ferguson feels strongly that we shouldn't shield children from the truth, crediting her choice of career to her own news-hungry childhood. "I watched the news as a child, and read the papers (the Mirror or People – including the kiss and tells!) from about age seven," she tells me. "I still have a news project I did for school when I was nine, when we had to read the national papers every week and then write the stories in our own words. Hillsborough, Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall... these were all shocking stories, but important ones."
Author Veronica Henry agrees. "Children need to be aware of why atrocities happen, so they can develop empathy and understanding." She concedes that sometimes images might be disturbing for very young children, and suggests that discretion should be exercised for children under the age of about 10.
It raises an interesting point: should we be applying age guidelines to news programmes, in the manner of film certifications? Certainly some of the images playing on news bulletins recently have been as graphic as anything I've seen in films, and are all the more distressing for being real. A film featuring the abduction of a child is unlikely to be shown before the watershed, yet a real-life missing child will be debated at length on 24-hour news channels.
With news coming at us from all angles – a rack of papers in the supermarket; a radio bulletin; a notification across the top of an iPad – it's almost impossible to avoid. Like all potentially difficult situations I think it's best to tackle this one head on with children. Talk about what you're seeing, and frame it in a way they can understand. Give some perspective so that, although they take in the fact that it's happening, they're also clear that the likelihood is low.
That missing child is frightening – for the child and for his family – but a tiny number of children go missing each year. Use it as a learning opportunity: what would your child do if they got lost? What would they say if someone offered them a lift? Terrorist attacks are a sad reality of today's world. What's your eight year old's perspective on tolerance? I'd bet money on it being more honest, compassionate and sensible than any politician's.
You can't change the news headlines, and although you can try and limit your child's exposure to them, perhaps it's better not to hide the realities of life. Instead make sure you're around to discuss what you're watching, or to dive for the remote if necessary, and always, always make time to answer questions.
Do you let your children watch the news?
More on Parentdish: How to answer children's questions about the news
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